BRUCE, Michael (1787-1861), of 44 Upper Brook Street, Mdx.
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Family and Educationb. 28 May 1787 in Bombay, 1st surv. s. of Patrick Craufurd Bruce† of Taplow Lodge, Bucks. and Jane, da. of Edmund Smith of Spotland, Rochdale, Lancs. educ. Eton 1802-5; St. John’s, Camb. 1806; L. Inn 1821, called 1826. m. 15 Aug. 1818, Marianne, da. of Sir George Dallas,† 1st bt., of Petsal, Staffs., wid. of Sir Peter Parker, 2nd bt., capt. RN, 1s. 2da. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1820. d. 4 Nov. 1861.
Bruce was born in Bombay where his father, the younger son of a Scottish baronet, prospered as a merchant before returning to England in 1794, setting up a London banking house, investing extravagantly in land and becoming a Member of Parliament. He was a spoiled child who was encouraged to believe that he would ‘take his place in the world and become a great statesman’, and that he need never fear from ‘want of money’. At Cambridge he was a friend of Lord Palmerston*, and both were members of the ‘Speculative’, an undergraduate discussion group. His restlessness was indulged by his father, who sent him on a tour of Scandinavia and the Baltic for several months in 1807-8, and shortly afterwards he abandoned his studies altogether to depart on an extended journey through the Mediterranean region and the Middle East, where he had a passionate affair with Lady Hester Stanhope. He moved on to Vienna and then Paris in 1814, possibly having an amorous liaison with the wife of Marshal Ney, and he subsequently became involved in the plot to smuggle the Comte de Lavalette, a condemned Buonapartist, out of France disguised as an English soldier. During the resulting trial in 1816 he reportedly ‘peroreed with much contemptuous affectation’. He was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment, but his exploits earned him a certain celebrity status in England and the nickname ‘Lavalette Bruce’. Palmerston, who was the best man at his wedding in 1818, thought that he had shown ‘want of judgement and discretion ... in his public conduct’ and was ‘deficient in ballast’, but added that ‘he has a good heart and that is the main point’.1
His early political sympathies were firmly with the Whigs - it was presumably he who joined Brooks’s Club, 11 May 1816 - and for a time John Cam Hobhouse* was a close friend. He privately condemned the Peterloo massacre, believing that ‘to meet for the discussion of political subjects and for the redress of grievances is the ... indefeasible right of Englishmen’, although he made clear his ‘most sovereign contempt’ for radical agitators such as Henry Hunt*.2 However, his political aspirations had suffered a devastating blow with the collapse of his father’s bank in July 1816 and the consequent disappearance of his inheritance. He offered at Lewes in 1820, but was obliged to operate on a shoestring budget and eventually withdrew, lamenting to his father that with £2,000 to spend he could have ‘driven [Sir John] Shelley out of the field’.3 His father died soon afterwards and he was named as the executor of his will, which was sworn under £70,000; but in reality the real and personal estate was ‘insufficient to discharge encumbrances and debts’ and no part of the legacies had been paid by 1832, despite the sale of the remaining landed property. He even faced legal suits against his management of the estate by his own mother and sister, who were both reduced to poverty, the latter being imprisoned for debt.4 Though obliged to concentrate on training for a legal career (which he did not pursue), his interest in politics was undiminished, and in 1826 he served on Palmerston’s committee for the Cambridge University election.5 An opportunity to enter Parliament finally came in 1830, albeit to the dismay of many of his friends, when he was returned for Ilchester on the interest of Lord Cleveland, who had recently broken from the Whigs and transferred his support to the Wellington ministry. In his nomination speech, he declared himself to be ‘in favour of civil and religious liberty, and a reduction of all those sinecures which at this time are so oppressive on the people’.6
The government listed Bruce among the ‘good doubtfuls’, with the additional note that he ‘states himself a friend’. He spoke briefly on Brougham’s courts of local jurisdiction bill, 10 Nov. 1830, warning that it was being introduced at ‘rather an awkward period’ as its provisions were likely to conflict with recent changes implemented on the recommendation of a select committee. He divided with ministers in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830, but in his only other recorded vote he supported the second reading of the Grey ministry’s reform bill, 22 Mar. 1831. This volte face reflected the shifting allegiance of Cleveland, whose desire for a dukedom had prompted him to return to the Whig fold. According to Thomas Creevey*, Bruce had been
the most violent opponent of the reform bill to be found anywhere. He joined in cheering Wetherell and Co. louder than anybody else, and in hooting our people whenever that operation was going on, but still his patron made him vote for the bill ... and dreadfully ashamed of himself he was for so doing.
He allegedly ‘tried to hide himself’ when the division took place, ‘to avoid being counted’, but was ‘detected in the act and made to show himself’. It was even rumoured that ‘having dragged him through the dirt’, Cleveland intended to force him to resign his seat immediately in order to create a vacancy for another ministerialist.7 This did not happen, but at the ensuing general election he was replaced by a committed reformer.
Palmerston found him lucrative employment for six months as a claims commissioner, much to the disgust of the Whigs at Brooks’s, but he never resumed his political career. In old age he described himself as ‘rather an obscure gentleman’ leading ‘the life of a solitary recluse in a solitary garret’, who ‘very occasionally’ mixed with ‘what are called the great’, but professed ‘much greater respect and admiration for the aristocracy of nature’. He complained that ‘I have been vegetating for many years in a state of moral and intellectual stagnation’, and dreamed of making a journey to China ‘which will produce excitements’.8 He never went, and died suddenly in November 1861. His personalty was sworn under £1,000 and administration was granted to his only surviving child, Michael Bruce (1823-83), a lieutenant-colonel in the Grenadier Guards.
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Terry Jenkins
- 1. I. Bruce, Nun of Lebanon, passim, and Lavalette Bruce, passim; Berry Jnls. iii. 92; K. Bourne, Palmerston, 44, 46.
- 2. Lavalette Bruce, 312-15.
- 3. Ibid. 317.
- 4. Ibid. 320; PROB 11/1627/189; IR26/810/362. He was supposed to receive £15,000, or £20,000 if the value of the real and personal estate exceeded £220,000.
- 5. Bourne, 247.
- 6. Lavalette Bruce, 321-2; Sherborne Jnl. 5 Aug. 1830.
- 7. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 30, 31 Mar. 1831.
- 8. Brougham mss, Ellice to Brougham, 26 Oct. 1831; Lavalette Bruce, 322-3, 329-30.